Building character: education by way of interruption An essay on the motives of EPECTO e. V.

(1) The difference that binds us

The Exchange Program on Education, Culture and Teaching Objectives (EPECTO e. V.) is a small, non-profit incorporated association (gemeinnütziger, eingetragener Verein) that promotes bilateral collaborations between Germany and the Philippines in the areas of education, culture and social development. Its unofficial motto is “education by way of interruption,” and it promotes the development of the participant’s life-competencies by immersing her into a culture that is radically different from her own. For almost ten years and in various operational timeframes, the partnership between the two countries has proven to be mutually beneficial.
The Philippines is a developing country that has a relatively low Human Development Index (HDI). In the 2012 global HDI ranking scale, it was ranked 114th in the world, with a visible decline in its status relative to 2011. Just recently, it discarded its 10-year school system in favor of a more international 12-year system. It should be noted, however, that up until that time, the Philippines had held on to a rather obsolete school system still shared by only two other countries (themselves developing ones) in the world. The country only has a very small number of nationally elite universities that, unfortunately, hardly make it to the world’s top 4000 in various reputable university ranking systems. Once a major economic trading partner in Southeast Asia, the country has lost that distinction for more than three decades now. At present, it owes a big portion of its gross national productivity rating from the efforts of overseas contract workers scattered across the world and providing blue-collar, short-term contract labor for various foreign institutions.
Germany, on the other hand, is a developed country that is ranked 4th in the same global HDI ranking scale and demonstrates a steady increase in its social and economic status relative to the preceding year. Its universities consistently belong to the top 100 in the world, and have produced over 70 Nobel Laureates in various fields of research. A major social and economic stakeholder in Europe, the country has remained to be a stronghold of trade, industry and over-all influence to the region’s developmental track. Its constituents travel the world not primarily to sustain the livelihood of their families or relatives, but to explore it, to experience it, to learn from it, and sometimes also to be agents of transformative action in various social and economic domains.
The contrast does not end there. The two countries also thrive on differing worldviews. While the Philippines may be among the most westernized countries in Southeast Asia—a distinction that is owed largely to centuries of colonization by Western countries such as Spain and the United States—it remains to be a collectivistic society. Collectivism permeates virtually every level of Philippine culture, from its smallest social unit to its global, corporate ones. Consequently, it perceives its backbone to be constituted not by individuals, but rather by social units, where the “I” does not play a central role and is oftentimes replaced by the “we.”
By contrast, Germany draws its cultural backbone from an individualistic orientation. A proponent and a product of the Enlightenment, its members are taught the value of caring for the self from the moment they gain consciousness. It is at once a right and a responsibility that is protected by law and implemented by various social systems—both tangible and intangible. As a result, social and economic development is oftentimes built on the shoulders of reliable individuals, rather than on collectivistic social units, where the latter—when existent—is often perceived to be a mere consequence rather than a cause of the former.
This ethnological difference makes for an interesting venue for an exchange that fosters intercultural competence. If developed conscientiously, such a competence may redound to a life-competence that benefits not only the German or the Filipino but also the globalizing world in general. The two cultures have so much to teach and learn from the other, albeit on irreducible levels of consideration. By itself, this is already not merely an invitation but an actual obligation to engage.

(2) The initiative to help and connect

Be that as it may, the socio-economic difference is also noteworthy, especially to the extent that it opens up initiatives that developed countries can put forward for the developing ones. After all, the terms “developed” and “developing” are not only theoretical concepts, but are also indicators of how far and how successfully a country is able to subsist in terms of basic human needs such as food, shelter, healthcare, and overall security in a contemporary global society. It is true that one does not live on bread alone; but it is equally true that one can hardly, if at all, make initiatives on an empty stomach.
These considerations, construed altogether, motivate EPECTO e. V. to send more social volunteers to the Philippines. In doing so, it not only strengthens its original intentions but also aligns itself with various other German institutions and takes part in a major effort to send people out into the world for a humanitarian or social cause. The Verein may be small both in stature and scope, but it has established a reliable foothold in the Philippines through intensive collaborative engagements with a number of educational, civic and religious institutions. It also prides itself in having an executive board that consists of high-ranking German civil servants and a Filipino academician who is also trained in elite German and Filipino universities.
Ninety percent of EPECTO’s participants, strategically spread out in a decade of operational experience, are Germans visiting the Philippines, whereas only ten percent are Filipinos visiting Germany. One major reason for this disparity is economic. When German participants visit the Philippines, they raise money for their own travel and living expenses. Their Filipino counterparts cannot do the same. They can barely make ends meet in their daily lives and traveling for that purpose—no matter how enriching it may be—not only economically hurts them but their families as well. Consequently, Filipino counterparts can only visit Germany whenever sufficient donations have been raised for them. While this inconvenient fact will never change, it remains true that the Philippines has become one of the desired venues for a social practicum by many of the Germans in EPECTO’s inland institute, Friedrich-Alexander-Gymnasium (FAG).

(2.1) Engaging the grassroots in the provinces

Friedrich-Alexander-Gymnasium is a school in Neustadt a. d. Aisch that caters to the educational demands of that small city, as well as of its surrounding towns. With a student population of approximately 1000, it is a relatively big school in a city that is relatively small compared to Germany’s metropolises. The opportunities for international engagement are, however, incomparable in terms of breadth or scope to its bigger neighbors in the region such as Nürnberg, Erlangen or Würzburg.
EPECTO e. V. provides an opportunity to FAG’s population—an opportunity to experience cultural exchange, non-credit enrollment or a social practicum in a developing country such as the Philippines. Interested students can avail of this opportunity, which they will otherwise seek in neighboring cities at greater costs of time, energy and money. Under the Verein, they can be immediately linked to its affiliates in the Philippines and, if deemed qualified, be sent there in accordance with its annual timeframes. Furthermore, the Verein also offers an Intercultural Competence Seminar, recently accredited as an official course, which serves as a preparatory seminar for anyone who wishes to go for a social practicum under weltwärts, with no partiality toward whether they should do it under EPECTO or independently of it.

(2.2) Providing an opportunity for practical learning

A social practicum in the Philippines provides a unique educational value to German participants. Although the Germans belong to the top five percent of the world’s most traveled people, majority of the traveling that they do consists of recreational or touristic activities. Meanwhile, those who live in another country long enough—such as the students and the professionals—oftentimes do so in an equally developed country. In either case, there is hardly an immersion into the hardships of a developing country or an experience of the depths of the culture that these countries have. Sadly, this makes many Germans blithely unaware of what is outside their worldview and grossly inexperienced in appropriately dealing with developing countries.
It goes without saying that an immersion into a developing country is an indispensible component of real education if, by ‘real education’ one means the inculcation of life-competencies. After all, the world is neither as small nor as simple as theoretical training assumes it to be. The majority of the global population does not have access to the conveniences that developed countries enjoy, thereby not sharing the worldview that such conveniences make possible. The majority of that population lives on worldviews that are still oftentimes unknown or misunderstood. That majority ought not to be excluded, dispelled or consigned to indifference, but rather engaged with, cared for and learned from.

(3) Learning from the other, learning from the ‘elsewhere’

Goethe once wrote: “It is in traveling that the proper human being finds the best education” (“Die beste Bildung findet ein gescheiter Mensch auf Reisen”). To this one must add that it is only so if not done superficially. The sad fact remains that traveling never truly educates when the traveler merely scratches the surface; when she goes elsewhere to only perceive what she wants to perceive; or when she fails to see the world through the other’s eyes. If this were the case, then traveling might indeed result in an ill educated human being.
But if she goes to live elsewhere and to do so long enough in order to perceive the other; to have a gauge of the pulse of another culture; and to open up to new possibilities for being human, then traveling indeed educates. It educates superbly. It educates for life.
This type of education—one that Goethe deems the best—can only be done through an opportunity to live elsewhere and to learn from the other. It can only be done by way of interruption, that is, by way of allowing oneself to be taken out of one’s comfort zones and thrown into another world. It is not easy, but it builds character. It allows one’s perspective to grow in terms of breadth and depth. It is human education at its best.
It is EPECTO’s lookout to offer opportunities for human education, and sending social practicum volunteers to the Philippines remains to be among the unparalleled opportunities that facilitate such an education. It is a necessary condition for its possibility. Given the support of a reputable institution such as weltwärts, this endeavor can be strengthened in large proportions, and more students can have a large measure of what it takes to be truly educated for life.

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